Target Approval Delays Irk Air Force Officers
By Thomas E. Ricks
As many as 10 times over the last six weeks, the Air Force believed it had top Taliban and al Qaeda members in its cross hairs in Afghanistan but was unable to receive clearance to fire in time to hit them, according to senior Air Force officials.
The officials said the problems stemmed from delays due to a cumbersome approval process and intense disagreements with the U.S. Central Command, which oversees the war, over how much weight to give to concerns about avoiding civilian casualties.
"We knew we had some of the big boys," said an Air Force officer familiar with the execution of the air campaign. "The process is so slow that by the time we got the clearances, and everybody had put in their 2 cents, we called it off."
Adding to these problems has been recurring friction between the military's operations and what amounts to a parallel war being waged by the CIA, which has played a significant combat role in Afghanistan, carrying out its own airstrikes with unmanned aircraft and deploying covert operatives on the ground, officials said.
The effect of the problems, some Air Force officials argued, has been to prolong the war. Despite a week of remarkable success in Afghanistan, they said, U.S. Special Forces troops are now being forced to go into Afghanistan on the ground to pursue members of the al Qaeda terrorist network and Taliban leaders who could have been killed from the air earlier in the campaign.
Although disputes within the U.S. armed forces over tactics has been a characteristic of most if not all wars, Air Force officials say the delays in approving targets have been surprising in Afghanistan because President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have made attacking members of al Qaeda and their hard-core Taliban allies the major objective.
At the same time, an official noted, Bush at the outset of the war made "low collateral damage" a major criteria in the conduct of the campaign. A reason, administration officials said at the time, was to avoid angering U.S. allies in the Islamic world about the conduct of the war.
One four-star general on active duty blamed some of the problem on micromanagement of the war by Rumsfeld and his senior advisers at the Pentagon. The execution of the war was "military amateur hour," the general said. "The worst thing is the lack of trust at the senior leadership level."
But most of the Air Force's frustrations over getting approval for airstrikes appear to be directed at officials at the U.S. Central Command headquarters, which is run by Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the overall commander of the war.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles F. Wald, who until earlier this month commanded the air campaign, has complained about the clearance problems directly to Franks more than a dozen times since the war began on Oct. 7, officials said. They said he never received a response. "Centcom was a black hole on this," one officer said, referring to the Central Command.
Wald moved to the Pentagon about 10 days ago to become the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for operations, a transfer that had been delayed to permit him to oversee the opening phase of the air campaign.
The complaints are now being discussed among senior Air Force officers at the Pentagon and elsewhere across the service.
A spokesman for Central Command, when asked for reaction to the Air Force complaints, declined to comment.
The unhappiness is not universal inside the Air Force. Some officers argue, for example, that the war had to be conducted with extreme care about targets because public opinion in Islamic countries could easily turn against the United States if there were excessive civilian casualties. Even so, the concerns have grown so widespread that officers at three major Air Force bases said they were aware of internal discussions about them.
Some Air Force officials have also expressed frustration with the CIA, saying it repeatedly failed to share information about its activities in Afghanistan. Friction between the CIA and the military is common in wartime, said one senior officer, but in the Afghan conflict it has been exacerbated because the CIA is not only gathering intelligence but also conducting airstrikes using an unmanned aircraft that carries missiles. Officials disclosed that over the last month, the agency's drones, called Predators, have fired about 40 Hellfire antitank missiles, a first in warfare.
But the CIA has been reluctant to inform the military what it is doing in Afghanistan, two Air Force officers said. "That's the way they operate," said one. "It's getting better. It's not fixed."
Despite the presence of Air Force liaison officers at CIA headquarters, Air Force officers monitoring Kabul and other sites in Afghanistan occasionally have been surprised to see an explosion, only to learn later that the CIA was firing a missile. "Something would happen, and we would say, 'What was that?'‚" the other officer said.
But Wald, in his first interview about the air campaign, said yesterday that "the relationship with the agency is fantastic. I don't see that as a problem."
Bill Harlow, the CIA's senior spokesman, said that, "There has never been a better relationship between the CIA and the military, and between the DCI [director of central intelligence] and the CINC [regional commander in chief]. We are sharing all information with the Central Command on this issue, and any suggestion that we are not is ludicrous."
The core of the clearance problem, as described by several officials, is that the Central Command, which has its headquarters in Tampa, retained authority to clear hitting sensitive targets, rather than delegate it to commanders of the air campaign, who were based at Prince Sultan Air Base, located 70 miles southeast of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.
Air Force officers described Central Command as the bottleneck in the campaign, requiring that almost every significant target involving the al Qaeda and Taliban leadership be approved by officials there, or even by more senior officials in Washington. "Imagine you have a target in sight, you have to wake up people in the middle of the night, and they say, 'Uhhhhh,' " said one officer. "It's a scandal."
The view of Air Force officials is that Franks frequently was swayed by the excessive doubts of his subordinate intelligence officers and his legal adviser, Air Force officials said. The Central Command's top lawyer in military parlance, the judge advocate general, or JAG repeatedly refused to permit strikes even when the targets were unambiguously military in nature, an Air Force officer said.
At one point in October, a Taliban military convoy was moving north to reinforce positions facing the front lines of the Northern Alliance, the Afghan rebel army. Air Force targeters thought it was a prime target easy to hit and of clear military value. The JAG, Navy Capt. Shelly Young, declined to approve it on the grounds that "it might be a trick," the officer said. The target was so obvious that it worried Young, who suggested that the Taliban might have put children in it. Overall, this officer said, Central Command officials "were deathly afraid of a setup."
The Central Command made avoiding civilian casualties or damage a major issue in the clearance process, officers said. "The whole issue of collateral damage pervaded every level of the operation," said one officer. "It is shocking, the degree to which collateral damage hamstrung the campaign."
Another Air Force official aware of the situation rejected that assessment as extreme, but said it was generally correct in the facts of the matter. "It's a problem that's been around for a long time with Centcom," he said. This long-standing issue was complicated by the personality of Young, who has a reputation of being cautious and a habit of playing "devil's advocate," he said. When clearance was sought, officials said, Young frequently would ask, "Are you sure?"
When faced with that question, the officials said, Franks would then turn to his top intelligence officer, Army Brig. Gen. John F. Kimmons, who tended to say they did not have total certainty about the target. "That got General Franks twisted into a pretzel," this official said.
One example of the problem of Franks wanting conclusive certainty, this official added, occurred when a target was positively identified by real-time imagery from a Predator drone. The Air Force's operations center in Saudi Arabia called for a strike, only to be overridden by the intelligence officers advising Franks, who said they wanted a second source of data. "It's kind of ridiculous when you get a live feed from a Predator and the intell guys say, 'We need independent verification,' " he said.
The Afghan war is not the first time the Air Force has squirmed over target clearance process. Getting approvals from all 19 members of NATO bedevilled military planners during the 1999 Kosovo campaign.
In this war, there is no coalition demanding to clear targets, yet the Air Force has found itself facing a very similar set of hurdles. The only other country involved in approving targets in Afghanistan is Britain, which asked to review all targets hit by B-1 and B-52 bombers flying from the British air base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.
Asked for comment, a senior defense official conceded that there have been some problems in the air campaign, but said that "95 percent of it was fantastic."
He did not dispute most of the account of the campaign offered by several other officials, but said it failed to recognize the political context and American values, which, he said, both argued for taking extreme care to avoid civilian casualties.
Air Force officers who think the United States was too reluctant to attack al Qaeda and Taliban leaders should recognize that "there's a delicate strategic balance," he said. "For the United States to maintain the coalition and to not have international opinion turn against it, there probably had to be a concern" aimed at minimizing civilian casualties more than is usually done in warfare. "The sense was, at the senior level leadership of the United States [military] . . . that a collateral damage incident would have a multiplier effect."
In addition, the senior defense official said, frequently the leaders being targeted by the Air Force were mixed in with groups of other people. "Our mores in America are, we don't kill innocent people. We have extreme sensitivity to that," the official said.
"For people to say we missed opportunities, that to me oversimplifies the situation."